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Mars Opposition V

May 22, 2016

The Moon and three bright companions arc low across the south tonight. The planet Saturn is close to the right of the Moon as night falls, with the star Antares farther to the right. And orange Mars stands above them all, shining brightest for the year.

Mars is at its peak because it’s lining up opposite the Sun in our sky, so it reflects the most sunlight directly toward Earth.

The planet is also passing closest to us. But because of its lopsided orbit, it won’t be at its absolute closest until May 30th. On that date, it’ll pass less than 47 million miles from Earth — its closest approach in a decade.

Because it’s so close, Mars is an especially big target when viewed through a telescope. Even small amateur models reveal the planet’s white polar ice caps, as well as patterns of brighter and darker markings on its surface.

When astronomers first looked at Mars through telescopes, many thought the dark regions were broad patches of vegetation — an idea that lingered well into the 20th century. That led to the idea that the planet might be inhabited by intelligent life.

The idea reached its zenith with the work of Percival Lowell, who sketched a network of “canals” cutting across the entire world. He surmised that the canals were carrying water from the ice caps, helping life survive on the Red Planet.

Alas, the dark regions on Mars are simply patches of dark rock. And the canals never existed — leaving Mars cold, dry, and barren.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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